The “ideology of form” and Go Down, Moses

The Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses. Image found found here.

Hosam Aboul-Ela’s book, Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, begins at the same place Glissant’s Faulkner, Mississippi does: that it might be useful to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world, what Aboul-Ela calls the Other South. But whereas Glissant limits his discussion to Faulkner as a Caribbean (or Plantation) writer, Aboul-Ela’s range is more global and more overtly materialist in orientation. He uses the work of Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a progenitor of (economic) dependency theory as a starting point for articulating a theory of postcolonial experience that originates in those regions rather than in Europe or the United States. He devotes a little over half his book to laying out the resulting “Mariátegui Tradition” before moving on to reading Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion) and Absalom, Absalom! through this critical lens.

Given the orientation of the intellectual tradition of the Other South that Aboul-Ela outlines, it’s understandable why he chooses these works to discuss at length: they are the Faulkner novels that lend themselves most readily to such readings, driven as the plots of each are by the arrival in Mississippi of outsiders and their getting and controlling of property and wealth and the attendant power to the benefit of the Few As Possible and the detriment of local folks. But a chapter section entitled “The Ideology of Faulkner’s Form,” his lead-in to his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, made me curious, in connection with some comments I made here, what Aboul-Ela might have to say about the ideology inherent in Go Down, Moses‘ form. So, below the fold I once again mount my GDM hobby-horse.

First, some passages from Other South that give a sense of Aboul-Ela’s orientation re the idea of the ideology of form and how, when discussing similarities between Faulkner and writers from the postcolonial world, he means something other than “influence.”

A reconsideration of the literature treating Faulkner’s relationship with Latin American novelists confirms the importance of the ideology of form. For example, Gabriel García Márquez states: “I think it is the method. The Faulknerian method is very effective for telling about the Latin American reality. Unconsciously, this is what we discovered in Faulkner. That is to say, we were living this reality and we wanted to tell about it and we knew that the European method wouldn’t work and neither would the traditional Spanish one and all of a sudden we found that the Faulknerian method is extremely well suited for telling this reality.” [. . . ] Method, I believe, here relates to narrative structure. [. . .] While this often cited statement by García Márquez has sometimes been interpreted to refer to Faulkner’s “modernist” style, the Colombian actually states that he is talking about a relationship between “method” and “this reality” that “we were living.” In other words, he connects literary form and material conditions, arguing for a kind of experimental neorealism, for a literary phenomenon invested in verisimilitude, more than for a borrowing of modernism’s fascination with the aesthetic realm. Borrowing this structure from Faulkner proves valuable for certain writers from the Global South because of parallels in their mutual experiences with colonial economies and unequal economic development, as these phenomena affect daily life, social conditions, political institutions, and personal relationships. (134)

Notice that this is a sort of materialist rewriting of the theory of archetypes, which I find intriguing.


For Aboul-Ela the form Absalom, Absalom! takes is shaped by Faulkner’s understanding of his region’s sense of the nature of History:

Joeé Carlos Mariátegui’s description of the structure of history as encompassing “stages that are not entirely linear in their development” not only exemplifies the long trajectory of thinking in the Global South that challenges the Hegelian–and Eurocentric–associations of history with linear, causal progress but might also be productively compared to William Faulkner’s novelistic attacks on linearity. I noted in chapter 3 that thinkers like Mariágui necessarily view the sweep of history with less optimism than Hegel (or, for that matter, Marx), optimism that resulted in the hyperemphasis on teleology present in Hegelian historiography. A Peruvian in the 1920s, rather, surveyed history from the subject position of an individual in a geohistorical context that had been branded by the era of Spanish colonization; by the undercutting of independence and nationalism by British and American commercial interests in the nineteenth century; and by the continuing struggle with economic, political, and social unequal development in the early twentieth century. I have distinguished between the Eurocentric historian–who might think of history as a linear series of stages, causally linked with one another, evolving gradually toward an apotheosis, with Europe’s material preeminence serving as a sort of culmination–and an oppositional historian–who might start from a critical view of this European preeminence. History, in other words, might not be a straight line. Euro-American colonialism does not result from natural and organic laws of cause and effect or from the grand design of a powerful and knowing prime mover. Rather, historical trajectories are multiple and must be seen from multiple points of view. (135, emphasis added)

These two passages, as I said earlier, set up his reading of Absalom, Absalom!, and those familiar with that novel’s structure would probably agree with Hosam Aboul-Ela’s argument that such a claim about history is compatible with it. But whereas in that novel the multiple narrators are ostensibly trying to understand the mystery of Thomas Sutpen–that is, their overt subject is the collective retelling of the single story of this man–what of Go Down, Moses, with what I take to be its parallel historical narratives? What might its form tell us about its ideology?

What follows is just a sketching out, without specific quotes from the novel. Apologies in advance.

In the Glissant post I linked to earlier, I had this to say about Go Down, Moses‘ form, with an assist from James A. Snead:

That design, James A. Snead argues in his reading of the novel in his book Figures of Division, is a miscegenated design: it has attributes of, and confuses the traditional distinctions between, both novels and short story collections. Thus, Snead writes, because narrative is traditionally a site of authority and rule, a structure which disrupts conventional notions of narrative implicitly calls into question other such rules of ordering. Therefore, “[t]he prose of Go Down, Moses is in the truest sense a ‘dialogue,’ not an authoritative ‘telling’” (206).

The novel is dialogic in another sense as well, that of its parallel narratives. There is that narrative that flows through the personage of Ike McCaslin, who seeks to figuratively as well as literally close the ledgers/legacy of his grandfather via his relinquishing of the family plantation and his efforts to ensure that his grandfather’s bequests of money to his (the grandfather’s) black descendants are distributed. Let’s call this the “white McCaslin narrative.” It would be a mistake to call it simply “the McCaslin narrative” because, even as Ike seeks to bring to a close (and believes he has done so) the McCaslin family narrative, another one has continued on its course unbeknownst to Ike until he is made aware of it in the person of Roth’s lover in “Delta Autumn.” As she recites her ancestry (she is the granddaughter of Tennie’s Jim, himself the son of Tomey’s Turl, who is the son of Ike’s grandfather by a slave, herself also offspring of the grandfather by another slave woman), she becomes the embodiment of the very ledgers that Ike had thought, for all these years, that he would never have to open again. Tennie’s Jim, by the way, ran away from Mississippi on the night before his 21st birthday, refusing to accept his share of the legacy from Ike’s grandfather (just as Ike does, in his own way, via relinquishing the inheritance of the land). Let’s call the narrative she symbolizes the “black McCaslin narrative.”

So, whereas in Aboul-Ela’s reading of Absalom, Absalom! we have multiple threads of history required to weave together the story of Thomas Sutpen–the construction of history–Go Down, Moses‘ form suggests a deconstruction of a historical narrative via the irruption of a black narrative into a white-constructed one. Strangely, then, Ike shares one crucial similarity with Thomas Sutpen, in that both presume to have full control over their respective narratives via closures they attempt to effect. In terms of its form, then, Go Down, Moses is perhaps something like what Thomas Sutpen’s own version of his life might look like.

But regarding that irruption of the one narrative into the other: what sort of ideology might be implied by that? Is it Faulkner’s implicit argument that blacks and whites, given their tragic history, are better off in their separate spheres, at least for now? Or is Faulkner implicitly arguing that that separateness has made and will make nothing better, and so, sooner or later, brave, generous souls should–must–risk love for each other? Or perhaps both are true? It’s hard to reconcile these two narratives in Go Down, Moses, to find any sort of correspondence, much less a happy one, between them–they are parallel in more ways than one, and that, on the whole seems to be okay by the respective keepers of these narratives, with the brief exception of Roth and her lover.

As for me, I find enormous ambiguity in Go Down, Moses that leads me to wonder, as I did in the Glissant post, just how much control Faulkner is exercising over his material here, whether (in my reading) he is fully aware of the extent to which he is undercutting the very authority he spends so much time on as he establishes Ike as Southern White Historian. I hasten to add that I don’t see that as a weakness; indeed, I see it as an implicit affirmation of my dissertation’s–and my book-project’s–central argument: that the effects of miscegenation’s unanticipated irruption into dominant culture’s narratives are analogous to those effects that the Encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Americas had for both groups of people.

I could let both Faulkner and myself off the hook and say that intentionality doesn’t matter, as far as my thesis is concerned: If there’s a primal scene/archetypal moment (you may choose your preferred term; I personally have no dog in the psychoanalytic-theory fight) for American culture, broadly defined, it is the Encounter. But having said that, I’m also curious about the extent to which Faulkner is weighing all this as he makes his choices as a writer. He very rarely was what one would call forthcoming as to his ends, and not terribly helpful as to his means–especially on matters that, as I suspect is true of this book–go deep, deep into him.


2 Responses

  1. You mention the desire “to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world” but I wonder if you (or the people you’re reading) aren’t drawing this distinction too sharply. I take the point of the intervention, but why not re-conceptualize what “modernist” means, putting aside the Modernist as “person-who-hung-out-Paris-with-Gertrude-Stein” in favor of a modernism more integrally related to the processes of modernization. To build on the comment you made over at my place, what some people (like Berman) call “modernization” other people (like Mignolo) tend to call “colonialism,” and if we follow that equation, an understanding of modernism as “engagement-with-modernization” does not contradict a definition of it as an engagement with global processes of inequality building, like colonialism (if not limited to it, of course, since both the South and the Global south were not, in the usual sense, colonized in recent history).

    Not that this is a counter-argument to yours, I think; but the thrust of it is to reclaim “modernism” as a way of relating form to politics. When GGM “is talking about a relationship between “method” and “this reality” that “we were living,”” it feels like one way to parse it would be to use “modernism” to describe what he and Faulkner are doing, but which is therefore a different modernism than the one that takes T.S. Eliot as its poster child (but which has no trouble with Joyce, for example, of Borges or Kafka). This does, I think, play into the final question you pose in the post: since we have no trouble attributing a certain kind of intentionality to the ways modernist writers trouble and destabilize epistemology, or whatever the latest jargon is, why not assume that this kind of intentional destabilization of global racial hierarchy (through the formal deconstruction of a white epistemological authority) is intentional in exactly the same sense?

    Really interesting stuff you’re getting into, by the way, and questions I feel like are really vital far outside the boundaries of “mere” lit studies. Makes me, again, really want to read Go down Moses.

  2. Aaron,
    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comments–and for the kind words.

    You say, “You mention the desire ‘to read Faulkner not as a Modernist or American writer, but as one whose region has much in common with those of other colonized places of the world.'” Well, I think that’s more accurately Aboul-Ela’s desire than it is mine. What I’m after is in essence a rhetoric or poetics of the Encounter as it emerges out of literary and historical narratives of miscegenation (both racial and cultural). So, such a thing will indeed arise out of the Americas’ material circumstances, for sure, but I’m not going to try to speak for other regions of the world. So I’m interested in articulating something that isn’t going to emerge via some specific narratological approach or at some specific historical moment, but something that emerges in fiction and non-fiction, as well as other art forms, just as a matter of course–and perhaps on occasion, in Faulkner and others, despite what they intend. That’s why Aboul-Ela’s materialist rewriting of archetypal theory (without, apparently, his realizing that he was doing so) caught my eye–it’s something like that, that uncanniness, that I’m after, but not that exactly that he is talking about.

    So, though I like Modernist works and I find interesting discussions of what Modernism is “about,” those aren’t issues I’ll be concerned with only tangentially. Re these folks I’ve been reading lately, though, like you I find it odd that they in various ways are suspicious of the Modernism because it’s European and therefore its methods can’t be used to speak to the concerns of non-Europeans without some fiddling with them when, looked at another way, these same folks could have their cake and eat it too. I suspect, though, their real target is not modernism per se but postcolonial theory and its (perceived) blindnesses born of its ultimately Eurocentric orientation. I do think it’s true that much postcolonial theory does not account at all accurately for the experience of the Americas, but that’s not because of its origins in Western discourse–rather, it’s because the Americas aren’t India or Africa, and the Spanish and Portuguese and French aren’t the British. Something very different happened here, broadly speaking; to set up indigenous and European and African peoples as being only monolithic constructs existing always and only in opposition to each other is a fundamental mistake if one wants to get at articulating a sense of what has happened and continues to happen here.

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